Monday, 16 October 2017

Made for the Dark

Made for the Dark is the new collection from John Llewellyn Probert and is published by Black Shuck Books. There are eighteen stories within the book, all of which act as a marvellous showcase for one of the most distinctive voices in horror today.
Previous collections from John (The Catacombs of Fear, The Faculty of Terror) were presented as portmanteaus – with the stories linked by a bridging device and that concept has been taken a step further with this collection, containing as it does an introduction to each story from the author a la Twilight Zone. It’s a clever technique, pulled off admirably – aided greatly by the front cover picture of the great man himself seated behind a desk, waiting to show you his special somethings…
I’m still waiting to hear from the OED for official recognition but many moons ago I coined the term “proberty” (as defined here) and it’s a word I’m more than happy to apply to this collection which I would be so bold as to describe as quintessential. It’s a difficult art, combining horror and humour and can, in the hands of a less skilled practitioner go horribly wrong but that’s certainly not the case with John’s writing. Much of what he describes is truly awful and I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining – whenever something gruesome and outlandish happens to a character – the author waiting for a reaction, a slight arch to one of his eyebrows and a tilt to his head, “are you really going to laugh at that..?”
Actually, I might be alone in that.
The humour, of course, helps to leaven the impact of the horror but it’s still extremely effective and some of the stories in this collection are worthy of Barker at his best. (By which I mean Clive and Ronnie).
If Made for the Dark is the quintessential JLP collection then I would suggest The Anatomy Lesson is the quintessential story, containing as it does just about everything you might wish to find in a proberty tale, Grand Guignol horror, an element of performance and… doctors. John is of course a doctor himself so it’s no surprise to see that particular profession cropping up in many of the stories in the book, including pulpy crime story The Girl with no Face, Victorian apocalypse Out of Fashion and The Secondary Host – possibly my favourite story in the book. Telling the story in first person necessitates a change from John’s familiar narrative voice and I think that – and the lack of the trademark comedy flourishes - make this an extremely effective chiller with a marvellous premise and mythology to back it up.
The Girl in the Glass also has a doctor as its protagonist but is also a cleverly constructed ghost story (using a very effective image as a reveal) and ghosts also crop up in Six of the Best – a glorious attack on TV ghost-hunter programmes with a nasty twist to it, not to say some very mucky bits.
There’s a touch of cynicism in that tale, a feature of some of the other stories; The Life Inspector and How the Other Half Dies gently rip apart their protagonists’ characters but the harshest treatment is given to charities in It Begins at Home – in which art imitates life – but not in a good way. (Interestingly, the story preceding this, the WW2 set The Death House with its heady mix of Nazis and Lovecraftian horror could be a case of life imitating art). A similar theme to that of It Begins at Home is to be found in The Lucky Ones, a title dripping in irony if ever there was one.
Humour is one of John’s trademarks for sure, but – as he displayed emphatically in his novella Differently There – he’s equally as capable of melancholy and pathos. This is admirably demonstrated in A Life on the Stage – a theatre-set swansong to bring the house down and The Man Who Loved Grief – a fairytale-esque (albeit a rather grim one) meditation on love and – well, grief.
There’s plenty more to enjoy besides these, tales of reincarnation, ancient rituals and the perils of reviewing online. There’s even – much to my delight - a weird western, Blood and Dust complete with an invisible monster a la Forbidden Planet (the film – not the shop) which is the final story in the book. With its fish out of water protagonist English professor John Summerskill, it’s closer in tone to The Sherriff of Fractured Jaw than Unforgiven but I enjoyed it immensely and it’s a fine end to a very impressive collection.
I enjoyed every moment I spent between the covers of Made for the Dark. For those already familiar with John’s writing it will be like settling down for a natter with an old friend (preferably in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of brandy) whilst for those yet to encounter his work it’s the perfect introduction.

Very proberty indeed.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Great British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills

Dark Satanic Mills is the subtitle given to the second volume of Great British Horror published by Black Shuck Books. I reviewed the first volume here with its stories set in rural environments, the location having changed for the second book with a move to the urban sprawl.
First up is Tools of the Trade by Paul Finch, a story which throws more light on the Jack the Ripper story, with a journalist offered the story of a lifetime revealing the true identity of the serial killer following the discovery of new evidence. A little surprisingly, the story isn’t set in London but Tunbridge – the location of Jack’s escape from the capital. It’s a strong start to the collection, thoroughly researched and provides a believable (albeit fictional) identity for Jack.
It’s also quite long. The ending, when it finally arrives, is very effective but it does take a long time to get there and, after all that’s gone before, feels a little rushed. I’d have really liked a little bit more time spent on the final scenes in an abandoned hotel – possibly the best location ever invented for a horror story.
Cate Gardner provides the second tale, Fragments of a Broken Doll, another trademark story in which the real darkness lies beneath the slightly surreal surface. The mysterious Trill lives with Harry in a house which backs onto a prison. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the house in which the true character of Trill is revealed. And it’s not pleasant. For anyone. It’s – as might be expected – an odd little tale that creates an almost palpable tension as the scene plays out. Strange and disturbing.
Andrew Freudenberg’s The Cardiac Ordeal is a high concept piece dealing with moral dilemmas. Shane and Linda’s daughter Emma goes missing – the victim, it turns out of a kidnapping. Things get darker when Shane is approached by the kidnapper and promised his daughter’s return if he agrees to carry out a series of tasks.
I guess the story is about how far a parent would go to protect their child – the tasks Shane must perform involve breaking the law – and escalate in seriousness as the story progresses. The final task, of course, is the most difficult to perform – the hardest test of his love for his daughter. There’s a twist thrown in for good measure but, much like the opening story, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed, that the decisions made were done so a little quickly. That said, it’s an effective ending to a tale very much in the Tales of the Unexpected/Twilight Zone school of storytelling.
The Lies We Tell are the basis for Charlotte Bond’s story. Its protagonist is Cathy, an estate agent with a well-developed selfish streak allied with a sense of self-importance second to none. Not a nice person then, and one who’s parenting skills could do with a little work.
When notes bearing handwritten numbers start getting posted through the letterbox and she starts hearing a strange clicking noise that no-one else can, things start to get a bit weird. To be fair, you’ll probably work out what the strange sounds and notes mean long before Cathy does – but that’s because she’s too self-absorbed to understand anything outside her sphere of existence. But that doesn’t matter, it merely makes the ride towards the story’s dark conclusion (with a hint of a very grim fairy tale about it) all the more enjoyable.
The guest international author for this volume is Angela Slatter who provides the book’s first urban myth story in Our Lady of Wicker Bridge. The myth tells of a pale woman who will approach those who were suffering and offer them a deal. The story is old in present tense, lending it an air of immediacy and revolves around social worker Tricia, taking over the “beat” of her mentor Hermione who has gone missing, leaving behind the burnt out remains of her car.
It’s a deeply atmospheric story that vividly creates the desolation of the housing estate in which most of the action takes place. Throw in a deeply scary little girl and the scene is set for a wonderful modern ghost story which is one of the highlights of the collection.
There’s much gory delight to be had in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Church With Bleeding Windows (the bleeding referring to the red stuff rather than being a mild profanity). It involves a demonic entity doing incredibly nasty things to people and is a rollicking good yarn for the whole of its relatively short running time. The reasons for the monsters actions are actually very clever and the story conjures up some startling images, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of body horror.
Marie O’Regan provides a fairly traditional haunted house story in Sleeping Black – in which Seth and Trudy inherit a house form his Grandmother, the family home of long-established chimney sweeping business. The appearance of small, black handprints herald a series of strange phenomena and ghostly encounters in a tale which provides little in the way of surprises and which treads a pretty well-worn path. It’s well written, and nicely paced but the use of so many familiar tropes render it a little predictable.
Gary Fry begins his contribution with the line: Every city, town or village has one: Station Road. It’s a statement I can verify, given that I live on one myself. The location provides the title for his story, albeit slightly tampered with to give us Satin Road. The removal of the letters features in the tale itself, a schoolboy prank against Dean, ostracised as a weirdo because of his penchant for horror and heavy metal (mind you…), who lives on the aforementioned road in a joke only those who lack the ability to spell could truly appreciate.
The dislike of Dean extends to his headmaster, Mr Rhodes, the only real friend he has being the narrator of the story who has a shared interest in horror. Sympathy for the devil can have its drawbacks though, as our narrator finds to his cost after Dean moves away from the area leaving a series of inexplicable events in his wake.
It’s another thought-provoking piece from Mr Fry, with a degree of ambiguity in the story’s conclusion regarding what has actually happened – and how, and why…
Non Standard Construction by Penny Jones provides the tale of a tenant James in the big city finding cheap accommodation to rent and then discovering the reasons why it was such a bargain. The reason in this case being the term which provides the story’s title, referring to the concrete – rather than brick – used to build them.
Except of course, in this story it means something else too. Building and tenant seem somehow connected in a story where the notion of taking possession is neatly flipped on its head.
Gary McMahon brings us The Night Moves, a story which channels his own experience in martial arts to tell of Miles, who sneaks into an abandoned warehouse to perform a kata – a sequence of martial arts moves designed to show skill and technique. Of course, Miles performs alone, there is no one there to judge him, the ritual is a solitary endeavour. And ritual’s the key word, as revealed in a back story, Miles has learned the kata from the mysterious Hoodoo, a homeless man with a mysterious past. The night moves he performs hold a dark secret – in essence it’s a black kata.
I really enjoyed this story and it’s probably my favourite of the book. There’s some nice references to The Concrete Grove books and in particular the mysterious Loculus with The Night Moves adding to that pre-existing mythology marvellously.
The final story in the collection is /’dƷɅst/ (my nearest approximation to it…) by Carole Johnstone. It’s the second story of Carole’s I’ve read featuring Glaswegian police – the first being Wet Work which appeared in Black Static. Like that story, this one features her trademark use of dialect in her characters’ dialogue. I have to confess, generally this is a pet hate of mine, whatever the dialogue is I’m always put in mind of Dick van Dyke’s uncanny portrayal of a cockney in Mary Poppins, and – as a northerner myself – I’m always frustrated by writers who think we pronounce “u” as “oo”. We don’t. Nobody does. Grumpiness and intolerance aside, I have to say that Carole always does a very good job of it although it does sometimes take you out of the story a little bit when you have to re-read a sentence to work out what’s being said.
Ironically, pronunciation lies at the heart of this story (and is reflected in the title) with a serial killer leaving notes at the scenes of their crimes written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system designed to elucidate the correct pronunciation of words but, tellingly, pretty much requiring a PhD to understand.
It’s a cracking story, and a thrilling end to the book but, if I can return to my aforementioned grumpiness, it’s more of a police procedural thriller than horror.

I enjoyed Dark Satanic Mills a lot, and it’s a strong follow up to Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a wonder as to which of the lyrics of Jerusalem will be chosen for Volume 3 – an anthology of chariot stories perhaps, or will mountains be the subject? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the urban theme was pretty much incidental to most of the stories in here with perhaps only the Johnstone and Slatter stories using the city as a character but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of them. Whatever the theme, I look forward to next year’s release, this really is shaping up to be a great British series of books.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Hasty for the Dark.

Hasty for the Dark is the new collection from Adam Nevill and is the follow up volume to last year’s Some Will Not Sleep which has deservedly just won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Like that book, Hasty… has been published by Adam’s own Ritual Limited and – also like the previous volume – is a beautifully produced hardback, this time featuring illustrations from Adam’s brother Simon, evidence that talent really does run in the family with the pictures perfectly envisioning the dark imagination of the author.
The book features nine stories, written between 2009 and 2015 - the period of time which began with the publication of Apartment 16 and ending with Lost Girl – and it’s a bonus, amongst many of the pleasures to be enjoyed within these pages, to see the subtle references to those works – and the novels which were published between them – in the stories collected here.
The opening story is On All London Underground Lines, which tells of the journey from Hell on the titular transport network. Or possibly the journey through Hell… Told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator, it effectively channels the frustrations and sense of dislocation and powerlessness experienced by many a traveller on the underground system, the feeling of being part of a herd, endlessly being shifted here, there and everywhere at the whim of the Gods of Transportation.
Of course, there are other horrors to be endured, the crowds through which the narrator struggles to find a way through are somehow different, there’s a hint of decay about them, something monstrous. So self-absorbed is our narrator, however, that – although he sees the horrors around him, his own personal needs render the monsters little more than annoying obstructions to his progress, placed there simply to get in his way. The imagery, whilst ignored by the narrator, is startling and a joy to read.
Next up is The Angels of London, which shifts the emphasis from travel in the capital city to life within it – more precisely that in rented accommodation. Tenant Frank comes into conflict with landlord Granby over a rise in rent and faces threats of retribution from the “family” who lease the property. Anyone who has read Adam’s novel No One Gets Out Alive will find echoes of that book’s loathsome landlord Knacker McGuire in the character of Granby who presents himself here as little more than a messenger boy for the “family” – a servant of sorts – conjuring similarities to Renfield, in thrall to a terrifying and monstrous master. Whilst the landlords might be described as blood-suckers with regards their rent demands, it turns out they’re far worse than mere vampires – and those demands go far beyond money…
Always in Our Hearts takes the reader on a very strange journey indeed, with taxi driver Ray hired to carry out a relay of journeys, dropping passengers off and picking up the next fare at the same house. All the passengers carry large bags which seem to contain something living although what this is remains a mystery throughout all the journeys, Ray’s curiosity increasing along with the reader’s as to exactly what all this is about. All is revealed at the final drop-off, neatly resolving the mysteries developed along the way and culminating in a bizarre climax. A strange offering indeed.
I had already read many of the stories in this collection but none so recently as Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) which I’d only just encountered in the New Fears anthology. Scholars of Greek Mythology will have an idea of what this story will be about just from its title and will probably smile at the names Jason and Electra – the protagonists of this tale of a first date going horribly wrong. This tale was written as a homage to Robert Aickman and hits the mark perfectly, presenting a series of strange, unexplained events and ending on a note of ambiguity, leaving the reader unsettled and disturbed. Along the way, it conjures up some deliciously creepy imagery by way of an inspired location – an abandoned zoo in which all of the animals (possibly) have gone.
The Days of Our Lives is one of my favourites in the collection, telling of a marriage made in Hell and featuring some classic Nevill imagery (to say nothing of some nice cross-pollination with his novels). The story borders on the surreal in some of its descriptions of the bizarre relationship between the story’s narrator and wife Lois and goes onto some very dark territory. Whilst the previous story unsettled the reader in a subtle way, the discomfort brought about by this tale is a lot more overt. It’s a genuinely disturbing piece of writing which forms the dark heart of the collection.
Hippocampus is up next and is my favourite story within Hasty for the Dark. I was blown away by it when I first read it in Terror Tales of the Ocean and am no less impressed on revisiting it here. It’s an extremely cleverly constructed story, and one which features no characters. It’s perhaps the literary equivalent of a found footage film, the narrative taking the form of a journey through an abandoned ship, describing what is present in each of the rooms encountered. This is no benign mystery like the Marie Celeste, the evidence uncovered reveals something terrible, and incredibly violent has happened to the crew. The real skill of the narrative is to engage the reader’s imagination, presenting them with the evidence and getting them to work out what has happened. There’s horror aplenty here but perhaps the greatest of them all is that this is not just the description of an aftermath but also a prelude.
Call the Name is the second of the four tribute stories in the collection, this time the author in question being HP Lovecraft. It’s the longest story in the book and is set in the same world as Adam’s novel Lost Girl. The environmental disaster described in that book provides the backdrop to this story and – a la Lovecraft – much scientific evidence is provided to explain just how things got as bad as they did, all impressive stuff, thoroughly researched and presented in a frighteningly believable way. Huge themes of revenge against mankind, the despoilers of the planet feature here and it’s an interesting proposition that it might not be the stars being right that herald the return of the Old Ones so much as the earth being wrong.
White Light, White Heat is the third tribute story, this time channelling the style and tropes of mark Samuels – a writer who, to my shame, I have yet to encounter. I have read Ligotti however, and found much to compare with that particular author in this unremittingly grim take on corporate life, a soul-destroying existence that grinds down its workers until the only possible source of hope is resistance. Interestingly, and possibly significantly, the industry under examination here is publishing.
The final story in the collection is also a tribute with Ramsey Campbell the recipient of the honour in Little Black Lamb. Again, it’s a masterful job of recreating the honoured author’s style and technique, the story injecting a heavy dose of sinister into a domestic setting, with a tale of a couple receiving memories which are not their own, images and thoughts which drive them towards a disturbing, and again deeply unsettling, course of action.
Hasty for the Dark is a superb collection of stories, and a worthy successor to Some Will Not Sleep. In comparison to the earlier book, its horrors are perhaps more subtle, less overt but are no less effective for that. The grotesqueries of that first volume have been replaced by suggestion and more ambiguous terror but the stories here still do a grand job of horrifying the reader.
There are links to Adam’s other books for sure, but also connections between the stories themselves. A recurring image will make sure you never look at a seahorse in the same way again and there are tantalising hints of the mysterious “Movement” which will hopefully bear much fruit in forthcoming works.

This is a stunning book in every regard, a wonderful retrospective of one of the most gifted purveyors of horror fiction currently plying their trade. It’s t be hoped that this yearly ritual of short story releases continues into the future, I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas; The Stories Continue.


Accompanying Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Silence, Perfect Darkness which I reviewed here, Hersham Horror are also launching two other novellas in their Primal Range at this year’s Fantasycon.

The first if these is Monstrous by Charlotte Bond. It tells of Jenny who – pretty much against her will – is relocating with her mother Pamela, following the breakdown of a relationship, to Haven - a woodland commune in the depths of Northumberland. As they settle into their new life, so they encounter the community’s other residents – and the secrets they carry with them.
Add a mysterious presence stalking the woods around them and the scene is set for Jenny’s journey of revelation, uncovering – in both literal and metaphorical terms – the nature of the beast in and of her new home.
Although the focus of the book is Jenny, the narrative is third person and presents events from various characters points of view, making much use of italicised inner thoughts for context and exposition.
Actually, probably a little too much. It’s a technique I don’t mind, (and am guilty of myself frequently), but there’s an awful lot of it in here – often running to paragraphs’ worth – so much that it often distracts from the narrative, taking you out of the book as if the characters are taking you to one side and whispering explanations to you.
The “monstrous” of the title refers to the thing in the woods (nicely hinted at until finally revealed) but it’s also the word used by some of the less tolerant members of the commune to describe others whose lifestyles fail to meet their high moral standards. Of course, the reality is that that’s how they themselves should be described. It’s a point which could perhaps have been made a little more subtly in the novella but a nice touch nonetheless.
Events finally reach a conclusion with a confrontation in the woods with the creature which has been stalking the commune – and the uncovering of connections and dark secrets. There are surprising revelations here, along with some deadly violence and it’s the latter which provides my biggest stumbling block in the book. Jenny is presented as rational and sensible, a counterpoint to the weirdness in the commune and I find it hard to accept that she would witness what happens and not even consider informing the police. Perhaps a more isolated setting for the book would have helped here, an island perhaps – truly cut off from society. Maybe it’s because I live not far from the location of the fictional commune; I love the wildness and emptiness of Northumberland but it’s not that remote…
Despite these criticisms, Monstrous makes for an enjoyable read, with lots of ideas and themes going on within it. It’s a good book, and one I recommend – I just feel with some things done a little differently it could have been a very good book.


Bury Them Deep is a dictum I remember well from my Murder for Beginners course and is also the title of the third novella in the Primal range written by Marie O’Regan.
It’s a supernatural thriller, told from the viewpoints of two characters – Maddie and Frank. The story begins impressively, not to say enigmatically, with Maddie’s uncovering of a skeleton – that of her mother who, it turns out, has been murdered. Things get even weirder when Maddie starts a conversation with her mother, in the process revealing her quest to find the remains and the itinerant life that has been forced on her to avoid the killer herself.
The second narrative thread details Frank’s story – describing his exploits as a serial killer of women via his own thought processes and innermost thoughts and as the novella progresses, it jumps between the two threads, slowly revealing the connection between the two storylines.
The two plotlines circle around each other until finally they collide in a confrontation in which the natural and supernatural combine to devastating effect.
I liked Bury Them Deep a lot, not least for the structure of the book, the clever way in which the two storylines weave together. There are twists to enjoy along the way, and it’s a nice touch to have Maddie almost as “weird” as Frank (though without the homicidal tendencies of course…) The final confrontation may have a touch of Deus ex Machina about it, and may stray towards sentimentality but the denouement is suitably dark.
Bury Them Deep is a short read – I have to admit I was surprised when I reached the end of it as there were still a lot of pages left in the ARC I was provided with – but there’s the bonus of two short stories included alongside the novella.

I’m firmly of the belief that the novella is the best medium for horror and Hersham Horror are doing a great job in solidifying that idea. I look forward to what the Primal Range will deliver next.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

Shrapnel Apartments is the new novel from Chris Kelso and is published by Crowded QuarantinePublications. It’s a follow-up to Unger House Radicals which I reviewed here and which was one of my favourite reads of last year.
Unger House Radicals dealt with the creation of a new art-form, Ultra-Realism, by film student Vincent Bittaker and serial killer Brandon Swarthy – whose relationship I likened to that of Rimbaud and Verlane. In possibly the most contrived pun I’ve ever managed (which is saying something) if UHR is Rimbaud: First Blood, (there’s certainly plenty of the red stuff spilled in its pages), then Shrapnel Apartments can surely be regarded as Rimbaud: First Blood Part II.
There’s a marked slump in quality between the two films but not, I’m very pleased to say, between the books. Whereas John Rambo appears in both films, undergoing an amazing transformation from traumatised, disillusioned veteran to some kind of invincible superhero, Bittaker and Swarthy barely get a look in – although they are referenced occasionally – Shrapnel Apartments is set in a post-Ultra-Realism world, a world in which the radical has become part of the establishment.
As with Unger House Radicals, the book is written in a scattershot style, from the perspectives of multiple characters. There’s perhaps more of a narrative thrust to this one though (or perhaps thrusts – there’s more than one story to be told here) and even a hint of (possibly) cosmic horror with the introduction of a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of the mysterious entity known as Blackcap and his assistant King Misery – first alluded to in an opening sequence set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s suggestions throughout the book that Blackcap is guiding events, toying with humanity to achieve his own, nefarious ends.
The storylines running throughout Shrapnel Apartments include those of child-killer Beau Carson and his investigation by corrupt cop Bobby Reilly, a spat between critics Gottleib and Mancuso (primarily about Ultra-Realism) and the eternal suffering of Florence Coffey. The individual stories are told in a variety of narrative voices, mainly first person testimonies (although it’s often not clear exactly who it is who’s speaking…) interspersed with third person sections, police records, random soliloquys and – significantly – autopsy reports. It’s a dazzling display of technique, the seemingly random sections bombarding the reader with images and ideas yet undergoing some kind of synergy to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts which will leave you breathless in its audacity.
Whilst Unger House Radicals was all about art, it’s a bit more difficult to pin down a single theme for Shrapnel Apartments although I’ll stick my neck out and boldly suggest it might be about the nature of evil itself. The titular apartments are (actually, may or may not be) the location of a reality TV show – a la Big Brother – so there’s evidence of evil right there and, given the references to Jazz music (which everyone knows is the work of the devil) which appear in the book I’m relatively confident in this assumption.

Not that it matters. What any reader takes from any book is absolutely an individual experience. What I took from Shrapnel Apartments was an admiration for a writer willing to try new things, be experimental and doing so brilliantly. This is yet another assault on the senses from Chris Kelso and I thank him for it. There’s great skill on display creating the distinct and individual voices of the characters but also in corralling all the disparate elements into a thought-provoking, dazzling and thoroughly satisfying whole.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence

Given the current political climate, there’s a very strong possibility that the whole sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction could be lost to use, re-packaged as contemporary drama so it’s probably a good idea to make the most of it while it’s still here.
Such an opportunity is provided with a new novella in the Hersham Horror line (which launched very successfully last year with these titles) from Richard Farren Barber – Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (a title which may, or may not, reference a James Lovegrove story – but which I kinda hope does because of the context).
The apocalypse in this book is not the result of handing the nuclear codes to a man with the reasoning capacity and awareness of a spoilt toddler - this is a work of fiction - but of an infection, a plague, which wipes out the majority of the world’s population, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. A familiar trope for sure, but those anticipating the arrival of hordes of zombies will be disappointed for in this scenario the “infected” are still very much alive, a threat simply because of the risk of infection they (literally) carry. Once dead, they remain dead – a situation which brings with it many practical implications for the survivors…
It’s the disposal of the corpses which is the job of Hannah, the protagonist – and narrator – of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Along with her team, she retrieves the fallen bodies of those who have made it as far as the outskirts of the village in which she and the other survivors now reside, in order to remove them and with them the risk of further contamination.
It’s the epitome of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” and there’s much grimness to be had in the descriptions of what the team have to do. There’s much opportunity for character development too, with the personalities of the team emerging from the ways in which they approach their grim task.
The community is led by the charismatic Dr Andrew Hickman who has shaped the rules and policies by which the village is kept safe behind its walls and quarantine zones and it’s these which provide the subtext to the novella. The political allegory of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is writ large, the paranoia and exclusion of the survivors towards the infected (and – crucially – the “possibly” infected) holds a mirror up to the current political climate here in the UK and other countries which, frankly, should know better.
In this context, Perfect darkness, Perfect Silence is incredibly powerful. The last act (the final solution) performed by Hannah and her crew is to tip the dead into huge funeral pyres – scenes which cannot fail to evoke images of much darker times, and a salutary reminder of the real cost of extreme ideologies.
I was mightily impressed by this novella and regard it as the best that Richard has written thus far. Despite the “heavy” politics it still works as an exciting read with fully drawn characters and a great deal of imagination on display. It’s a cleverly constructed world Richard has created here and his use of Hannah as a protagonist gradually discovering – or uncovering – exactly what is happening is something he handles expertly.

I highly recommend Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. It will be launched, alongside the other new novellas in the series, at FantasyCon in September.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Cottingley

Cottingley is the new novella by Alison Littlewood and is the second in a new series of four being published by NewCon Press. The book uses as its backdrop the events of 1917-1920 in which photographs purporting to be of real fairies were taken by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, which gained a deal of notoriety when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used them in an article for the Strand Magazine, regarding them as genuine and proof of the existence of the creatures.
The novella is set in 1921, when interest in the photographs was beginning to wane and is written in epistolary style, consisting of a series of letters from Lawrence Fairclough, an elderly widower who lives in the village of Cottingley and who, if he is to believed, has uncovered new – physical – evidence of the fairies.
Other than the first letter which is addressed to Conan Doyle himself, the remainder are written to Edward L Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society and another true believer in the veracity of the photographs. Fairclough has discovered the body of a fairy, and has his own photographs…
The fairies Fairclough describes are far from benign, indeed, physical harm is done to both his daughter Charlotte and granddaughter Harriet by the creatures. These are the fairies of ancient folklore, malevolent and dangerous.
As the novella progresses, the letters document a change in Fairclough as his obsession with the fairies grows. The replies he receives are not shown but the writing here is so skilful that they don’t have to be – the distancing of Gardner from Fairclough is all too apparent from the increasingly frustrated tone of the letters the widower constantly sends.
The use of letters as the narrative voice in Cottingley is an inspired one, providing insights into the character and personality of their author. Fairclough’s initial excitement at his discovery gradually turns to frustration and hubris, his own vanity leading to anger and arrogance. It’s all beautifully done, the changes introduced subtly and carefully. This character study is the real heart of the book, the fairies and the truth or not of their existence merely the canvas upon which the portrait is being painted.
This deterioration of course leads to Fairclough becoming the most unreliable of narrators. There’s much to suggest that his evidence for the fairies is as genuine as the photographs taken by the girls (who finally admitted they were fakes in 1983). Reading the letters through this filter casts a much darker hue on the story, provides a disturbing viewpoint for some of the incidents he records in his correspondence.

I enjoyed Cottingley very much indeed, cleverly constructed and written with exactly the right amount of ambiguity to keep you thinking about it long after you finish it. You can, and should, buy it here.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Shadow Moths.

Shadow Moths is the first release from Frightful Horrors, a small UK publisher whose mission statement is to recreate the chapbook format of yesteryear in ebook form, via their “quick reads” – short stories from authors designed to act as a showcase for their talent.
Cate Gardner supplies two stories for this debut publication: We Make Our Own Monsters Here and Blood-Moth Kiss. Anyone familiar with Cate’s writing will find much to enjoy here whilst it will act as a perfect introduction to her slightly surreal and whimsical style of writing to those yet to experience it.
It has to be said that these stories are definitely in the weird fiction camp, being neither particularly frightful nor horrific, but beneath the surface of the strangeness dark currents flow.
The opening story concerns puppeteer Check Harding and his stay in the Palmerston Hotel prior to a job interview. There’s much surreal humour to be had here, with receptionists hiding behind desks and ankle-deep shag pile carpets. The humour is gradually replaced by a slowly creeping sense of dread when Check makes the trip to his interview wherein a bizarre, transformative experience occurs in which puppeteer becomes puppet, a bargain somehow made which will change his life forever.
The darkness at the conclusion of We Make… is made more profound by the humour which precedes it. There’s less of that on display in Blood-Moth Kiss, which is set in an air-force base during the onset of a nuclear war.
Maybe.
Sections of the story are titled with the date and time which, if read carefully, offer some hint as to what this complex and puzzling story may really be about. I loved the imagery in this one, anyone who had accidentally crushed a moth will be aware of the ash-like substance which remains and this metaphor is use dis to very good effect in this – and I use the word deliberately – haunting tale.
These are, as stated from the outset, quick reads – easily devoured in a single sitting. As with much of Cate’s work, a second reading is always something I’d recommend. First time round, just lose yourself in the poetic weirdness, second time try and discern the hidden meanings – and the brevity of these two tales certainly allows for this.

I enjoyed my time in the weird world of the Shadow Moths and strongly recommend you try it for yourself. You can buy the book here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Anatomy of Monsters

The Anatomy of Monsters is a new anthology from Stitched Smile Publications and is edited by Robert Teun. Monsters are, of course, a staple of horror and many people’s – myself included – introduction to the genre. The theme behind this anthology was an interesting one: new takes on old legends, stories which would provide new interpretations on classic monsters, perhaps provide new insights into their lives (or undeaths as the case may be).
The book is a mixture of original stories and reprints with eighteen tales covering a wide range of subjects. Vampires are the subject of the opening story, Gary McMahon’s I know I Promised You a Story, a tale which adopts an approach similar to George A Romero’s Martin, creating a compact little tale which actually serves very well as an introduction to the book, ending on a nice use of the “inviting in” trope to set up the rest of the stories in the anthology.
Origins stories abound here, with authors presenting their own takes on why and how monsters came into being. This is done in straightforward fashion with Alex Laybourne’s The Birth of Djinn and Jess Landry’s Gorgons using narrative styles in keeping with the historical periods under scrutiny whilst a more adventurous style is employed with Greg Chapman’s Conjoined and Carl Jennings’ Losing Visibility which provide alternative explanations for Jekyll and Hyde and The Invisible Man respectively. Perhaps the best of the early insights into… stories is Steven Chapman’s Le Mort Vivant which uses the setting of the tunnels beneath the Paris opera House to great effect in this engaging tale of the Phantom’s early years.
It’s the later years of Frankenstein’s Monster which are the subject of Brian Hodge’s A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, a story which cleverly uses the paradoxical combination of sensitivity and destructive potential of the creature to chilling effect.
I have a particular fondness for werewolves so found myself a little disappointed at their appearance here in Nicholas Vince’s Family Tree. It’s a story in which the tone seems a little inconsistent and which lays its cards (and plot) out at the very beginning. What follows is that plot playing itself out (therefore without any surprise elements to it) amidst some clunky exposition/info dumps. Even more disappointing was Whitechapel, 1888 by Alisha Jordan. The subject matter is obvious from the title but the story gives away its “secret” – the identity of the Ripper - at the outset and then proceeds to be little more than a lurid description of the murders themselves, details which will be known to anyone with even a passing interest in the case but presented here a little too gratuitously.
Also slightly disappointing, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else of his I’ve read, is Josh Malerman’s Basic Shade. Set in prehistoric times, it tells of the creation of the first ever ghost – a clever concept but one I felt wasn’t quite realised in the final story.
Laura Mauro appropriates an REM song title for Nightswimming in which the real monster of the piece isn’t the one you might be expecting whilst Simon Bestwick shows a romantic side to his talents (albeit interspersed with graphic horror and monsters lurking in caves) with To Walk in Midnight’s Realm.
The Darkness in Our dreams is a high-concept piece from Phil Sloman told almost as a fable which describes the birth of nightmares. It’s cleverly done, and has some suitably disturbing imagery to back up the narrative. I liked it a lot but I think my favourite story in the collection is Daniel I Russell’s Rational Creatures, a story which best fits the book’s title, a historical horror which combines the dissection table with high art.

I enjoyed my time uncovering The Anatomy of Monsters. It’s an entertaining mix of stories and styles and (on the whole) well written throughout. The balance between old and new both in terms of reprints and originals and the monsters themselves is just about right. This is Volume 1 in a proposed series and I look forward to seeing what future editions will bring.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Creeping Stick

Creeping Stick is a novella by Liam Ronan and is published by Pendragon Press. It’s a debut by Liam and, I have to say, a mightily impressive one, written with great style and confidence and marking the author out as someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Set in the Welsh village of Hafoc in the early years of the twentieth century, it tells of the arrival – via shipwreck – of the sinister figure of Raziel Menalaus Spindle, a disfigured and deformed character, his physical appearance giving rise to his nickname – Creeping Stick. Accepted by, and slowly becoming an influential figure in the Hafoc’s society, Spindle unveils his plans to build a “Home for Progressive Youth”, an idea which is met with full approval until the details of what will actually take place within the home are discussed. The techniques he is to employ to “further” the children seem to be counter to religious teaching and it’s this which leads to a breakdown in the relationship between the village elders and Spindle.
Shunned by the villagers, Spindle becomes an outcast, reappearing on the day of the summer fayre with gifts of barrels of beer. The villagers drink freely, and fall into drug-induced slumber.
Then the children disappear…
It’s only when a girl escapes Spindle’s clutches to return to Hafoc that the true horror of what Spindle has been up to is uncovered. With his plans for his home dashed, he has instead constructed a building hidden out in the dunes which lie on the edge of the village: the House of Perpetual Lament.
The story is told as a first person narration, by Hafoc’s priest – witness to all of the events and a member of the group who set out for the House of Perpetual Lament in the story’s conclusion. It’s a distinctive voice, written in a style appropriate to the period of the book and it’s credit to the author that it’s maintained throughout the length of the novella. Presented as the confession of a dying man there’s obviously the risk of this being an unreliable narration but to be honest, this is of little consequence as the tale which unfolds is such a gripping one. What’s even more impressive is the amount of imagination on display here. The scenes set in the House of Perpetual Lament are a joy (if that’s the right word…) to read, as one horror after another is uncovered by the group of villagers. Vivid descriptive prose abounds here with some startling, not to say, disturbing imagery on display. The writing here is reminiscent of Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, that’s how good it is, and presents a potent mix of body horror, creeping tension and even a dash or two of steampunk imagery.
There’s a lot going on in Creeping Stick. Within the gloriously entertaining narrative there’s a commentary on small town narrow-mindedness, the use and abuse of power and it could even be read as an addition to the religion versus science debate or a musing on faith, or the lack of…
Creeping Stick is a wonderful piece of writing and an incredibly impressive debut. There’s a hugely entertaining epilogue too which at first seems completely remote from the novella itself but which gradually reveals its subtle links to the preceding narrative.

I loved it, and strongly recommend you check it out for yourself, which you can do here.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Beneath

Beneath is the debut novel from Kristi DeMeester and is published by Word Horde. Set in the 1980s, its protagonist is Cora, a journalist sent to rural Appalachia to research a story about an evangelical preacher who incorporates snake handling into his services.
What follows truly is a journey into the heart of darkness, in which buried secrets are unearthed – among them Cora’s own, a back-story revealed which adds context and nuance to the horrors she uncovers.
Beneath is not an easy read. Cora’s investigations take her to some very dark places, and there are scenes which are difficult to read – not because of the writing, which is immaculate throughout - but because of their subject matter. I’ve often expounded the theory that the mark of an effective horror story is that it unsettles and disturbs and that's very much the case with this novel. There’s nothing gratuitous or exploitative here though, the prose is calm, assured and understated – which makes the horrors being described all the more profound.
There are human monsters here for sure, but there’s also a supernatural element to the horror. The author has created a mythology in which to embed her story which works brilliantly, the dark forces she conjures providing a wonderful device with which to address the many issues the book raises. These supernatural elements are introduced gradually and very cleverly. Dreams and reality merge, wrong-footing and disorientating the reader before taking prominence in the book’s closing chapters. Confining the story to its remote location works extremely well here, with neither the protagonists nor readers exactly sure of what is happening and to how many.
Multiple themes run through the narrative, twisting around each other like snakes in a pit. There is much metaphor and allegory here (even the choice of Cora as a name has a significance) with the aforementioned serpents providing much of the real and suggested horror. A combination of snakes and religion usually leads to temptation and this is one of the stronger motifs on display here – a weakness in some, a weapon to others.

Beneath is a marvelous debut novel. Unafraid to tackle difficult issues, it provides a bleak and compelling examination of human nature whilst at the same time creating a believable, and terrifying mythology. It’s another fine addition to the steadily growing ranks of literary horror and a book I thoroughly recommend.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Sacculina

I have to admit to being a sucker for a good old creature feature. There’s nothing quite like a story of man against monster, whether those monsters are of the supernatural or natural kind. Shark movies seem to be making a bit of a resurgence lately but none will ever top the magnificence which is Jaws. Perhaps it’s the combination of the isolation of being out on the open sea and the threat of the creature itself which makes maritime monsters especially terrifying. Cast adrift on open water, it’s feasible that any creature can be made scary – certainly the case with sharks, giant squid and killer whales. Even as benign a creature as a whale can be rendered terrifying – especially if it’s white.
Such is the setting for the new novella from Philip Fracassi, Sacculina which is published by Journalstone. The monsters faced here are a mutated species, a surprising choice on the face of it perhaps but, as it turns out, an inspired one, the scenes at the book’s conclusion deftly handled by a writer with abundant skill and technique, creating real tension amidst the more visceral elements.
Brothers Jim and Jack charter a boat to go on a fishing trip with friend Chris and their father Henry, a chance to re-forge old ties and bond following the release of Jack from prison. There’s a little bit of foreshadowing before the boat even leaves port with the captain trying to warn them off because of bad weather, only to accede to their wishes but taking them to a different, safer(!), location…
It’s all lovely, traditional stuff and it’s the familiarity of the set-up which creates a warm glow of recognition in the reader, a sense of anticipation at what is still to come once our heroes are out in the middle of nowhere.
Given the environment the men find themselves in, the opportunities are there for much discourse and recollection with back stories floating to the surface, revealing much about the characters, revealing hidden depths. Tensions – familial and otherwise – are exposed, nicely adding to that of the overall narrative; the journey out to sea mirrored by that into the souls of the protagonists themselves. These sections are nicely done, allowing insight without slowing the pace or being a distraction. There’s even space for a little profundity, musings on life and the nature of existence – again without holding up the narrative which slowly ramps up the tension and feelings of dread until the real horror arrives.
And it is real horror. The attack of the creatures is handled with as much skill as the character development which has preceded it. Trust me, this is intense stuff with some sequences definitely not for the faint-hearted. The pacing here is superb, exciting and frantic, a lovely counterpoint to the slow build of tension which has gone before.
I loved Sacculina; pulpy enough so as not to betray its creature-feature origins but elevated by very skilful writing so that while you still may not care for some of the characters, at least you’re interested in them. Having already released a collection which is a contender for year’s best, Philip has here provided a novella with an equally strong claim to that title.

Sacculina is released on May 12th and you can buy it here.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Ascent

Ascent is the new novel from Luke Walker and is published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Beginning with the imminent threat of nuclear bomb detonating outside RAF Lakenheath, it’s a novel which hits the ground running.
Actually, that’s exactly how the narrative begins, with one of the book’s main characters, Kelly, crashing into the reception area of Greenham Place, the high-rise building which serves as the location for the rest of the novel, a safe haven from the blast which turns out to be anything but.
Once inside, she encounters others who have found themselves inside the building at the moment of detonation; her sister Alex, Rod, Dao and Simon – but no one else… At least no one human.
So begins a dazzlingly inventive, fast paced and disorientating tale in which reality is blurred as much for the reader as the protagonists themselves. They find themselves haunted, somehow their own individual fears manifest as apparitions and inexplicable encounters. Unable to escape from the building, they become captives, hunted as well as haunted by the ghosts of their memories and fears.
There’s a wonderful sense of unease and disorientation created in Ascent. The protagonists have no idea of what is happening, or why – and those puzzles are shared by the reader. Has the bomb gone off and they are all dead? Has time somehow frozen and trapped them in a kind of limbo? It’s a massive strength of the book that it raises these questions in the reader’s mind, carrying them along with the narrative which cracks along at a fair old pace, offering hints and suggestions along the way.
Hinted at all through the book, is the presence of some elemental force guiding the action, a suggestion that the building itself is a manifestation of that force, a nexus of evil as it were, tormenting the protagonists, exploiting their fears.
It’s the individual confrontations with their personal horrors which provide some cracking set-pieces, many of which are not for the faint-hearted. Even amidst the fast-paced action, each character arc is given time to develop as the group of five find their own ways to resolution and, given that the commonality in all their stories is an overwhelming sense of guilt, even redemption.
I loved Ascent, it’s a high concept story which is evidence of a great imagination at work. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, but Luke handles all the narrative threads and ideas perfectly and has created a book which works on a whole range of levels. Exciting, scary and thought-provoking. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Ascent is officially released on June 3rd but you can pre-order here.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Little Gift

One of my favourite things in the world is to read a story and then, once it’s finished, find myself still thinking about it, reassessing and re-evaluating what I’ve read, gaining fresh insights, revealing subtleties which registered only subconsciously on first exposure to the words.
Such was very much the case with the new novella from Stephen Volk, The Little Gift which is published by PS Publishing.
It’s a slim, but beautifully produced (and illustrated), volume and I rattled through it in a single sitting in less than an hour. Its brevity belies its content however as what we’re given here is a tale of massive depth, the words and story undergoing some magical synergy to create a piece of work which stealthily infiltrates your mind, a first person narrative which makes you believe the story is heading in one direction before craftily heading off somewhere completely different.
The first person narrative is absolutely essential to the story. Yes, the narrator is unreliable – but aren’t they all? Narrators (not to say readers) will always superimpose their own interpretations on stories but his unreliability isn’t the most important thing anyway. What the narrative provides here is a beautifully crafted exploration of character. And not a very nice character at that.
It’s difficult to say too much about the Little Gift without giving away key plot developments. Bad things happen, some very bad things happen – both directly and indirectly involving the narrator and it’s his attitudes towards these events which provide the deepest insights into his character.
I chose Stephen’s story The Peter Lorre Fan Club as my favourite of last year because of the skill with which he slowly unfolded the story by means of dialogue alone and there’s as much skill on display here this time using a monologue. Some may find metaphors for society in general in the attitudes of the narrator, but even as “just” a description of a fairly – actually deeply – unpleasant individual, The Little Gift is an outstanding piece of writing.

A week after reading it, I’m still mulling over The Little Gift. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing and I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Behold the Void.

One of the many highlights of 2016 for me was “discovering” the writing of Philip Fracassi, with two novelettes, Mother and Altar and a novella Fragile Dreams. Much joy then, at the prospect of starting 2017 (kinda) with a collection from him, Behold the Void, which is published by Journalstone.
The two aforementioned novelettes make up part of the collection and my reviews for them can be found here and here. It’s with much joy again that I can report that I found the rest of the stories in Behold the Void to be of as impressively high standard.
Soft Construction of a Sunset opens the collection, a gloriously constructed tale in which the horror gradually reveals itself, a slow build-up of tension from the almost poetic opening lines to its twisted conclusion. Told in present tense, the narrative immerses the reader in protagonist Tom’s response to friend Marcus’ plea for help, a technique that pays of supremely when the reader realises the final horror just before Tom himself does.
Family dynamics have a big role to play in two of the stories, Coffin and Surfer Girl. Both are incredibly dark tales, with subject matter not for the faint-hearted and teenagers as their protagonists. The former delves into folk mythology with hints at a Green Man type character – although with a less than benign nature than would be traditional whilst the latter charts young Adolf’s trip to Acapulco with his mother and her new boyfriend Steve. It’s a marvellous character study of a disturbed psyche and has an opening line which is destined to feature in any number of “best ever” lists.
The Baby Farmer provides a potent cocktail of priestly indiscretion, child murder and apocalyptic prophesy in a story which switches between present day narrative and the historical diaries of a woman incarcerated for the kidnap and murder of children. It’s another cleverly constructed story, jumping between the two narratives and the voice employed for the diaries is impressively convincing.
Big decisions are required in Fail-Safe, a monster movie wrapped up in a psychological drama. At its heart is a moral dilemma, a classic head and heart conflict. It’s an almost Schrochingeresque scenario facing the son of two loving parents, one of whom definitely is, and the other who might be, a ravenous, blood-thirsty monster. Open the door and let them out? You decide…
The Horse Thief is one of my favourite stories in the book. There are hints of the surreal in this tale of the titular villain and his services to provide horses to clientele with very specific, and very strange requirements. The story’s strange nature, and darkness, put me in mind of the writing of Ralph Robert Moore – which is praise indeed. Tales of redemption are always winners for me and the route this story takes towards that end point (whether or not it’s achieved is open to discussion) is a hugely entertaining – if slightly disturbing – one. It’s strange and weird and I loved every moment of it.
The final story in the collection is Mandala and is probably my favourite of all of them. It’s also the story which most effectively encapsulates the theme suggested by the book’s title as it’s an exploration of the forces which dictate our destinies. Are our actions truly our own or are they guided by forces way beyond our imagining? It’s another impeccably constructed story – the major themes are introduced early on with descriptions of celestial bodies and tides – with a succession of inter-related events ultimately leading to tragedy. There’s a certain inevitability about what happens in the story – which, I guess, is the whole point of it - and the writing is so good that the reader cannot help but be drawn into the action which unfolds. There’s a long scene, on a beach, which is one of the most terrifying and tense I’ve read in a long time. It’s a story which is, well… cosmic. It’s also got scary ghosts in it.

Behold the Void is a stunning collection and one which I enjoyed immensely. I anticipate seeing it mentioned in many year’s best lists to come. I thoroughly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Fungoid.

Fungoid is the new novel from William Meikle and is published by DarkFuse. It’s an apocalyptic tale from an author who, over the course of his writing career, has wiped out huge swathes of the world’s population by means of alien invasion, cosmic seaweed and giant crabs (to name but a few) this time choosing to bring about the end of the world with a fungal infestation.
It’s an original take on the apocalypse and, it has to be said, an entirely plausible one. Just Google “largest organism on earth” if you need proof. The fact that any organic material can provide a home for the organism means that the world itself is infected – not just the people living on it and, throw in the fact that the fungal spores are dispersed by wind and rain and you have a truly terrifying scenario.
By concentrating on a handful of characters, Willie manages to corral what could have been a sprawling epic of book into a tightly constructed, fast-paced narrative – a cracking read that homages the pulp novels and B-Movies which must surely be its inspiration. Whilst greatly enhancing the pace of the book, this approach can have some drawbacks – most notably when world events are touched upon, outbreaks of wars and civil unrest relegated to a few lines or a paragraph almost making them seem like an afterthought. There are some scenes of environments overgrown with fungal hyphae which were very effective but again, a few more of these set-pieces may have enhanced the book.
It could be argued that this is the quintessential William Meikle book, combining as it does so many of the tropes and themes which have been a feature of his writing thus far. The fungal threat will be familiar to those who read his highly entertaining Professor Challenger collection The Kew Growths – which allows for a little in-joke within the narrative – but another recurring theme, the power of music also crops up here, most overtly in a reference to being “lost to the dance”, a literary motif used to great effect in the author’s collection Dark Melodies.
There’s science too – some real, to add verisimilitude and some made up, to add entertainment value. This is no ordinary fungus, it’s an escapee from a lab – situated in the same country that made Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps (i.e. not America).
I regard Fungoid as the literary equivalent of North by Northwest – a screenplay that was written for Hitchcock which contained as many Hitchcockian themes and set-pieces as it was possible to cram into one film. The director was in effect making a homage to his own work and there’s maybe something of the same going on here. Whatever, the end result is a deeply entertaining piece of writing which takes a number of well-established tropes and characters and moulds (yes – that was deliberate) them into something new.
From its small beginnings in a traffic accident on Watson Drive (there was always going to be trouble on a street with that name…) to its stirring conclusion on the Newfoundland coast I loved every moment I spent in the world of Fungoid. The end of the world is probably on a lot more people’s minds right now so it was nice to enjoy a fictional interpretation of that scenario.

You can, and should, buy Fungoid here.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Under a Watchful Eye.

Under a Watchful Eye is the new novel from Adam Nevill and is published by Pan Macmillan. It’s an early release date for the book and follows closely on the heels of Adam’s self-published collection of short stories, Some Will Not Sleep.

Anyone who has read that collection – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – will experience a frisson of recognition at the title of the first of three parts into which the novel is divided, Yellow Teeth, as it shares it with one of the stories in the SWNS. The short story took as its subject matter the “lodger from (perhaps literally) Hell” and that narrative is reproduced here, in a much-expanded form as author Seb begins to catch glimpses of old acquaintance Ewan, a friend from his student days, a mentor even for his burgeoning writing career before the friendship broke down acrimoniously.
A ghost from his past then – a phrase given a possible literal interpretation from the descriptions given of these opening encounters. Much creepiness and unease is generated in these opening passages with Ewan mysteriously appearing and disappearing, sometimes in seemingly impossible locations…
The ambiguity ends when Ewan finally turns up as a creature of flesh and blood and Seb reluctantly take him in as a guest. The horror then shifts from the supernatural to a combination of gross-out verging on body horror (although I felt this was more effectively done in the short story) as Ewan’s disregard for anything even resembling personal hygiene impacts upon Seb, but also the horror of the loss of control and order as the entropy of his unwanted lodger’s lifestyle and beliefs comes into conflict with Seb’s neatly ordered existence.
With Ewan comes much exposition and the introduction of the one of the book’s central themes – astral projection. Such was the technique used by Ewan in his early appearances and such is his obsession, in particular the life and work of M L Hazard, author and researcher into the esoteric and the subject of Ewan’s magnum opus. Despite himself, Seb finds he is drawn into the dark web his guest is weaving around him…
Under a Watchful Eye is a slight departure in style from Adam’s other novels (although perhaps not so much as the more overtly thriller aspects of Lost Girl), relying more on psychological and supernatural terrors than the more visceral fears engendered by the Blood Friends or the denizens of shadowy houses and Scandinavian forests. The tone is possibly most similar to his debut novel Banquet for the Damned and it’s probably no coincidence that a terrifying dream described in this book features a golf course… There are subtle references to Adam’s other novels, a technique I’m glad to see he continues to use, most notable Last Days.
There’s still room for some trademark Nevill horrors though, with fiendish entities scuttling across the pages. These are most effective in two sequences, one aboard a train and the other in the darkness of the abandoned house used by Hazard as his research headquarters. The book also introduces us to Thin Len, an archetypal Nevill creation and destined to fuel nightmares for years to come.
I have a feeling Adam had a blast writing this novel. The old adage of “write what you know” has been well used here I believe as it’s hard to imagine that Seb – at least in terms of his writing career – isn’t based on the author’s own experiences. It is, I have to say, an extremely cleverly constructed book and one of the biggest revelations within it comes very – and I mean very – unexpectedly. The chapters are named, something I like to see, but there’s some puzzlement as to what the titles mean as many bear little relation to the events described following them. Finding out the reasoning behind them is one of the many joys of reading Under a Watchful Eye, a novel in which the metaphysical becomes the metafictional. It’s a book which is as much about the process of writing as the horrors contained within its twisting and surprising narrative.

I loved it and can’t think of a better recommendation to begin 2017’s horror reading experience.